the ancient Greeks, dealt not with 92 natural elements, but with a
mere 4: earth, air, fire, and water. Yet there was an added mystery
to their chemistry. They believed that the stars were composed of an
imperishable element. Beyond their quartet of perishable elements,
then, was a fifth, or a quinta essentia, which soared
majestically above the world representing a higher kind of being and
a visible image of immortality. This fifth essence, therefore, was
the quintessence, or the purest manifestation of anything
Hamlet spoke masterfully and metaphorically when he said of the
human being: “What a piece of work is man! how noble in reason! how
infinite in faculty! in form and moving how express and admirable!
in action how like an angel! in apprehension how like a god! the
beauty of the world! the paragon of animals!” And then, at the
climax of his panegyric, framed him in a most exquisite paradox as
the “quintessence of dust.” 1
dust” embraces the most disparate poles of that creature whom
Medieval philosophers called “homo duplex” and Genesis
described as both made in the image of God and compounded of dust.
Man is a mixture of starlight and earthdust. His being is a
synthesis of the uncreated and the created. He is eternal like the
stars and as ephemeral as dust. He bears within himself a tension
that establishes both his drama and his destiny.
“Truth consists of paradoxes,”
wrote the American poet Carl Sandburg, “and a paradox is two facts
that stand on opposite hilltops and across the intervening valley
call each other liars.” Throughout history, man has oscillated
between polarities that seemingly contradict each other. He aspires
to angelic status, but all too often descends to the realm of the
bestial. His soul takes flight; his body remains below. He is an
enigma, claiming to be both the special creation of God and the
accidental product of chance. His ancestry is either sovereignty or
slime. It is small wonder that human sexuality, that demands the
integration of both the creative and the corporeal, has so long been
a source of confusion and one-sidedness. Indeed, of exasperation and
revolution” of the sixties was more an enslavement to the flesh than
a liberation from moral constraints. Pope Paul VI’s encyclical,
Humanae Vitae, not surprisingly, was greeted, by and large, with
indifference, incomprehension, and hostility. Paul VI’s statement
that birth regulation must be understood in the light of the “total
vision of man” (n.7) meant little, if anything, to most people. A
world that embraced specialization, convenience, and simplistic
solutions was hardly disposed to grasping the paradoxes inherent in
this “total vision.”
understanding both the fundamental importance of this “total vision”
and the rift in the Church that followed Humanae Vitae, was
determined to set things right. From September 5, 1979 to November
28, 1984, Pope John Paul II delivered to Wednesday audiences in Rome
a series of 130 allocutions that presented this total vision of man,
applying it to the nature of the human person, sexuality,
masculinity and femininity, and marriage. Altogether, the totality
of these talks constitutes the Pope’s “Theology of the Body,”
“Theology of Masculinity and Femininity,” or “Theology of Marriage.”
has stated that “If it is taken with the seriousness it deserves,
John Paul’s Theology of the Body may prove to be the decisive
moment in exorcising the Manichaean demon and its deprecation of
human sexuality from Catholic moral theology.”
2 There is
nothing “conservative” or “moralistic” in the notion of human
sexuality that the Pope elaborates. Men and women are embodied
persons. The human body is an integral feature of their concrete
personhood. The body is not a container or an inferior apparatus for
the “soul” of the person, as some contemporary separatists claim. It
is that through which men and women express who they are and enact
their existence. The human being is a psycho-somatic entity, an
integrated, self-possessed person.
John Paul, who
has a great love for languages, emphasizes the meaning of the Hebrew
words in Genesis that describe humanity, the man and the
woman. In the Priestly text in Genesis, which is the first
account of the creation of the human being, the word ’adam is
used: “God created man (’adam) in His own image; in the image
of God He created him; male (zakar -masculine) and female (uneqebah
- feminine) He created them” (Gn 1:27). Here the Hebrew term
’adam expresses the collective concept of the human species,
“corporate personality,” or humanity.
In the term
’adam and ’dama (soil, ground) there is an evident play
on words, a practice the Bible shares with other ancient literature.
In no way is this an instance of punning. To the Hebrew mind names
were not merely identification labels, but symbols, magic keys, as
it were, that opened to the essence of the beings they signified.
The humble origin suggested by the notion of being molded from the
earth, from dust (‘apar), conveyed a seal of humility that
man would ignore at his own peril. Human beings are, indeed,
According to the
second or Yahwist account of the creation of the first human beings,
God creates Adam initially and then the woman. “It is also
significant,” states the Holy Father, “that the first man (’adam,
created from ‘dust from the ground’) is defined as ‘male’ (’ish)
only after the creation of the first woman” (’ishshah).
Genesis 2:23, we find for the first time the distinction between
’ish (man) and ’ishshah (woman). “We can conclude,”
John Paul writes, “that the man (’adam) falls into that
‘sleep’ in order to wake up ‘male’ and ‘female’.”
creation is not complete, then, until man and woman stand in loving
partnership with each other. The image of God is reflected in the
mutual self-giving that man and woman express to each other. The
nuptial or marital significance of the body is an icon of the Law of
Gift built into the core of human personhood that reflects the inner
dynamism of God’s own life. Through love and gift, dust attains its
There is never
the remotest hint of prudery in the Pope’s discussion of the body.
“The human body,” he state, “oriented interiorly by the sincere gift
of the person, reveals not only its masculinity or femininity on the
physical plane, but reveals also such a value and such a beauty as
to go beyond the purely physical dimension of sexuality.”
Nor does he ever
associate human sexuality with rules. He wisely repositions the
discussion of sexual morality within the context of the human person
as set forth in Genesis and then reaffirmed and broadened in
the New Testament. The question is not so much, “what must I avoid
doing?” but “how do I express my sexuality in a way that is
consistent with my dignity as a person and as an image of a loving
believes that the Pope’s 130 catechetical addresses “constitute a
kind of theological time bomb set to go off, with dramatic
consequences, sometime in the third millennium of the Church.”
“Theology of the Body” is, indeed, faithful to the “total vision of
Man” that inspired it. It integrates and harmonizes the Yahwist and
Priestly accounts in Genesis, the Old and New Testaments, subjective
experience with objective reality, theology with philosophy, faith
with reason, the masculine with the feminine, and anthropology with
ethics. It makes plausible the paradox that dust and diamond, dirt
and divinity, characterize the essence of the same being.
though we are,” writes Ralph McInerny, “unimaginable without feet
and arms and ears, all of which will one day turn to dust, we are
diamonds whose facets give off light and darkness.”
7 Or, as Gerard
Manley Hopkins expresses it in his own inimitable way:
This Jack, joke, poor
potsherd, patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond.
teaches philosophy at St. Jerome’s University in Canada.
1 Act II, Scene 2.
2 George Weigel, Witness to Hope (New York, NY:
HarperCollins, 1999), p. 342.
3 John Paul II, The Theology of the Body (Boston, MA: Pauline
Books & Media, 1997), p. 35.
4 Ibid., p. 44.
5 Ibid., p. 65.
6 Weigel, op. cit., p. 343.
7 Ralph McInerny, “Persons and Things,” Crisis, Jan/Feb 1997.
8 Gerard Manley Hopkins, “That Nature is a Heraclitean Fire and of
the Comfort of the Resurrection.”
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